At last, my journey to Absalom was over. Instead of taking advantage of modern conveniences, I'd decided to make the journey afoot. It took longer than I expected, but I was glad for the chance to be an active participant in my travel for once. As I continued from the western edge of town toward the town square, I realized how different my hometown suddenly seemed. Everything looked the same - at least, I thought; my memory dulls over time - but somehow it still felt unfamiliar.
I passed two middle-aged townsfolk who I used to know. I still recognized them - my memory's not that dull - but their eyes just glanced over me as they walked on by. Have I really been gone long enough not to be recognized? I thought to myself. Sure, I keep my blue fur shorter than I used to, but I'm still the same old Lupe from the farm outside town.
I'd reached the heart of town, and I entered Old Martha's, letting the glass door close behind me. Old Martha's was the general store. Well, it had to be - it was the only store in town. I used to work night shifts there, and the little brick building was close to my heart.
Over in the produce section, I saw a familiar red Gelert, young but with a slightly weathered appearance, as though he'd already been through the wringer more than he deserved. "Tristan?" I called out as I approached him.
Tristan's ears perked up. He turned, and his brown eyes betrayed a slight double take. "Hi, Sam. I never thought we'd see you around here again."
I laughed slightly. "Listen, I've been gone a while, but Absalom is important to me! I couldn't stay away forever."
"Sure. Nice fur."
Tristan interrupted me. "How long's it been since you were here?"
"It's been about six years." I tried to dress my embarrassment with a cheeky grin. "I was in Brightvale for a long time finishing my degree, and now I've been out working for a year in Neopia Central."
"Cool, look at mister big shot. What's your big wig job in Neopia Central?"
"I'm a statistician." I didn't know where his hostility was coming from, but I decided to overlook it. I didn't want to pick a fight during my first conversation back in town. "Are you still working on your family's farm?"
Apparently, Tristan didn't share my plan of keeping the peace. "Yeah, I still work the wheat fields with my dad. You know, I'm the kind of Neopet who doesn't need some fancy gig in some big city." With that, he grabbed up his groceries and went for the store counter, some anger evident in his gait.
"Tristan!" I called, but he didn't look back. A dramatic scene in front of however many folks were shopping - and during my first few minutes back in town - wasn't something I wanted, so I let it go and kept shopping. I just wanted some food for a picnic, so I grabbed an apple, a Chokato, and some local bread. Had wheat from Tristan's farm gone into the making of this bread? I wondered. I used to harvest wheat too. Funny how one world thinks of it as wheat, while in the other world it's just bread and nothing more. Half the folks in Neopia Central couldn't tell the difference between wheat and dying grass. I might not be a farmer anymore, but can't I still be a part of this community?
Once I had all the groceries I wanted, I went to the counter and handed the cashier 200 Neopoints. The Acara working the counter looked at me with an odd expression. "That ain't gonna be quite enough. Looks like I'll need 250 Neopoints for what you've got."
"You're kidding! When I worked here, this stuff would have been 150 Neopoints!"
She raised her eyebrows. "You used to work here? What's your name?"
"Must have been a long time ago. I don't know that name. Anyway, Martha had to raise her prices a couple years ago so she could keep the store open. She's been having trouble keeping us going lately," the Acara lamented, a hint of disappointment appearing in her eyes. "It's been hard to deal with the changes around here."
What changes could there possibly be out here in Absalom? I wanted to ask. Instead, I said, "I'm sorry to hear that." I really was. "Hopefully I'll catch Martha at some point while I'm in town." I gave the cashier the remaining Neopoints on my balance, grabbed the bag with my picnic inside, and walked out of Old Martha's and into the street. As I stepped outside, I looked around at the ageing buildings which lined the streets. There - up toward the north edge of town - I saw a trace of Tristan.
Do I want to pursue what happened in the store between us further? It was an easy question to answer. I started running toward him on all four legs, trying to catch up. "Tristan!" I called, like earlier, when I was approaching him. I heard Tristan sigh, come to a stop, and turn to face me.
"What do you want, Sam?"
"I want to know what just went on at Old Martha's! What was with that outburst? I wasn't expecting something like that on my visit back."
Tristan's eyes narrowed and his jaw stiffened. "What were you expecting, then? A parade? A party for the big shot who got out of Absalom? Do you think you're special, Sam, coming back from Neopia Central?"
"Come on, Tristan, I didn't mean anything like that--"
"Yeah? Then what did you mean? What are you trying to do by coming back?"
"I'm coming back home!" I'd raised my voice just as Tristan had raised his. "I've been gone for years, and I wanted to see Absalom again!"
"You've been gone for years!" Full-blown shouting from Tristan now, followed by a quieter tone which was still saturated with anger: "You don't belong here anymore, Sam. You're not a farmer anymore. You've got your fancy job, and your high-class city, and you just don't fit into Absalom anymore."
"And who are you to just declare that?" I asked him, frustration and sadness in my voice. "I don't live here anymore, but this town still means a lot to me!"
Tristan shook his head and made a half-turn away from me. "You can ignore me if you want. You did that for six years already. But I don't think you should stick around here for too long." He fully turned away from me and resumed his journey in the direction of his farm. "Your fancy place in the city might get lonely without you."
This time, I didn't bother calling out to him as he left. I didn't see any point in that. Instead, I took my groceries and left for the picnic spot I'd planned, my mind a lot heavier than expected.
I walked along the road, passing a few farms, until I reached Martha's farm. She lived on a nice little parcel of land, with a decent-sized yard and plenty of fields out back. There was a corner of her yard that I still had a standing invitation to use for picnics. I went back to that little corner, and no one else was there. It looked like Martha must be somewhere in town, too. I was all alone.
I propped myself up beside a rusty windmill, preparing to set up my picnic, with fields of wheat surrounding me on three sides. Were they fields of wheat? Or fields of bread?